Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Roundups For The Littlies

The Reading Tub's Blog has started a monthly carnival of easy readers and short chapter books, which it is calling I Can Read. While at the January post, I learned that the Jean Little Library blog has a post on all the Cybil nominations for easy readers and beginning chapter books with links to reviews.

I became interested in chapter books while I was writing a couple of books for kids in the early grades. It seemed to me that a lot of the books written for younger kids are...well...not terrific. I read a dreadful early reader back in December, as a matter of fact. I was shocked...shocked, I tell how bad it was. On top of that, these easier books don't seem to get a lot of attention from adults. Middle grade and YA are the hip and happening categories, probably because they're closer to what we like to read for ourselves.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quick! I Have Books Due At The Library!

I did a little graphic novel reading this fall, and I can't renew the books at the library again, so I guess I'd better blog about them, if I'm going to.

First, I read a couple of the Babymouse books by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. I think what makes these books work is that they are graphic novels. While the stories are fine, the basic plots of the two I read, Skater Girl and Puppy Love, weren't particularly unique. But joining those plots with the graphics and the mouse, definitely elevated them.

I found it a little unusual that the books sometimes use a third-person narrator who speaks directly to Babymouse and wondered if kids found that confusing. Presumably not, since there are a lot of Babymouse titles.

Our library classifies Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell as a graphic novel, though I think I'd describe it as more of a heavily illustrated novel for younger readers. It's a beautiful looking book with an interesting basic story, though I could have done without the Cousin It-like character, myself. Readers frequently have to stop reading to study the illustrations, which do, indeed, sometimes tell part of the story. (Though sometimes they're just illustrations.) I wondered if young readers would find that frustrating. On the other hand, a young, not-very-enthusiastic reader might find it a relief to stop and enjoy the scenery.

If you go to the Original Artwork From Children's Book Illustrators site, be sure to watch the slideshow of Riddell's Illustrations to Unwritten Books. It's very clever. Among my favorites...Hot Comfort Farm and Wuthering Tights. But there's lots of good stuff there.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

A Lovely Little Find

I was in the library earlier this week, looking at all the special powers books on the new books' shelf in the children's area. By which I mean books about kids learning they have special powers or having special powers and going to special schools to develop them or kids in some kind of fantasy world full of special powers. I understand that children enjoy reading the same kinds of things over and over, and I respect their desire to do that. But, man, it's hard for an adult working in kidlit not to keel over from the sameness of it all.

So imagine my delight when I saw a book about something so mundane as writing thank you notes. Really, we have gotten to a point in children's literature where the mundane is unusual.

Some people might think that Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes by Peggy Gifford is a little gimmicky. The chapters are short with titles that sort of bleed into them. Take Chapter 25, for instance:

Chapter 25

In Which Mark Says No


Plus, young Moxy falls asleep at odd times. And the book uses a third-person narrator who sometimes intrudes into the story.

Other people might point out a couple of stereotypes, like the odd little sister and the divorced dad who makes plan to see his kids but never carries through with them.

However, Moxy Maxwell isn't trying to be Anna Karenina (which, to be perfectly honest, I've never been able to get through). Moxy Maxwell is trying to be a light, clever, amusing story about a girl who is close to over-the-top but in a funny way that doesn't have time to get annoying because the book is so short. And it does that very well.

There's a real storyline here about poor Moxy, who must finish writing her Christmas thank you notes before heading to California with her brother to finally visit their father, a former soap opera actor who is out in Hollywood hunting for a Big Deal. We're not talking random jokes or actions, which is what you sometimes find in books for this age group. But what's most admirable about this book is that it's a funny story for younger kids that treats its readers with respect. The author doesn't assume that child readers only laugh at toilet humor and funny sounds. This is lightish entertainment that a kid doesn't have to feel embarrassed about having read.

And a word about the illustrations, which are photographs by Valerie Fisher--the pictures are supposed to be taken by Moxy's brother as the story is taking place. What we have is a little mixed media going here, and it works better than some more sophisticated attempts that I've seen.

I read a paperback edition, which would be perfect for tucking into a camp trunk this summer, or bringing along for a family vacation.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Possession For Kids?

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett is the first in a series called The Sherlock Files because the two main characters, Xena and Xander Holmes, learn they are descendants of Sherlock Holmes and set to work solving one of his unsolved cases.

I found the Sherlock Holmes connection problematic. Anyone familiar with Sherlock Holmes will doubt he had any descendants because, 1. he was fictional, and 2. in the stories he doesn't come close to having any kind of relationship that would produce offspring. (That includes Irene Adler.) So for the basic premise of The Sherlock Files to work, some kind of alternative history needs to be provided in which Sherlock Holmes is real and did, indeed, produce heirs. Nothing like that appears in the first volume. There are references to some Holmes' stories--a pub is named The Dancing Men, for instance, (The Adventure of the Dancing Men ) and Dr. Watson's young descendant has red hair (The Red-Headed League), but beyond that, I didn't see any what you'd call world building.

Now, an argument could be made that young readers won't be familiar with Sherlock Holmes, anyway, so they won't have any problems with the lack of logic behind the story. But if they aren't familiar with Sherlock Holmes, why does the whole Holmes' business need to be there?

Putting the Holmes' set-up aside, I actually liked the art history mystery in The 100-Year-Old Secret. The kids hunt for a portrait missing for a hundred years. The art talk is interesting. And the minor, nonrecurring characters who provide information about the long-dead artist are far more realistic and able to hold this reader's attention than the members of the Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives, who I suspect are going to turn up in later adventures. A story about contemporary characters solving a mystery about a historical arty figure--with kids--has real potential, I think.

I picked up The 100-Year-Old Secret because I thought it looked like a mystery for younger readers. Though Amazon describes it as being for 9 to 12 year olds, I think kids on the younger end of that range will appreciate it best.

The second book in the series will be published next May.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

A First Creepy Doll Story

As luck would have it, I just finished reading a book appropriate for Halloween posting.

The Red Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer is a Stepping Stones Book. "Build the bridge to chapter books...," the publisher says. So we're talking a book for young 'uns here.

Earlier this week, anonymous and I were talking about whether or not books for children and YA readers need truly new and unique story lines because much is new to less experienced readers, anyway. I understand that everything's new when you're too young to vote, but I find it difficult to judge how good a book for a younger audience is when its plot and/or characters and/or setting have been done to death.

The Red Ghost is an example of a book that is using a story line that's been done many times before but doesn't come across as the same old, same old. The Red Ghost is a creepy doll story, and, yes, indeed, a lot of us older folks have seen it before. But Dane Bauer manages to create a real sense of tension here that I don't usually see in books for kids this young. This is a short, complete mystery that the kid characters manage on their own. You've got what is really a simple plot, a limited number of characters, and a setting that is rooted in one place, all necessities, I think, for a book for kids in the lower grades.

Many books for this age group are just silly and pointless. The good ones tend to be very realistic, sometimes with adult characters helping child protagonists learn feel-good lessons. The Red Ghost is a genre novel for the very young. I don't think I've seen many of those, and I was quite taken with the novelty of it.

Like many early chapter books, this one has a number of illustrations. Peter Ferguson's black and white drawings definitely show the feelings of the characters portrayed. He created a great-looking main character, a neighbor who is a dignified, contemporary older woman, and a doll that looks as if she's got something on her mind.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cybils Easy Readers

Nominations closed for the Cybils last week. A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers is one of the nominees in the new Easy Reader category. Anastasia Suen provided a list of all the Easy Reader Nominees as of last Tuesday.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

An Educational Experience, Though Not A Pleasant One

Nearly a month and a half ago I decided it had been a while since I'd read a book for younger readers, so I picked one up at the library. It just happened to be a graphic novel. I found out later that I'd be one of the judges for the Graphic Novel Division of the Cybils, which made reading the book I'd already picked up a little more interesting.

The book was interesting in a truly dreadful way. It was one of those degrading younger kid books that relies on what passes for wordplay and stupid humor. It was combined here with gimmicky images that appeared to be there to make kids' eyes pop.

I think that in a graphic novel the images should not just be illustrating scenes. The images should actually take the place of narrative. They should show true action, as in movement of plot.

Take The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for instance. Hugo Cabret isn't a graphic novel, but I think it could be said to have graphic elements. Sections of the story are told through pictures. Those pictures don't just illustrate some text the reader reads. They actually show us what is happening without words. Many of the scenes I recall involve movement. Our hero runs through a train station, under a clock, and up some stairs, while being chased by a guard. None of that is written down anywhere. We see it happen in the images and understand what has happened when the story picks up with text again.

I think that's what's supposed to be going on with a graphic novel. The images aren't supposed to be redundant. They aren't supposed to repeat what we read in a panel. They're supposed to replace the narrative that would occur around dialogue.

All the images did in this book I'm taking about was illustrate. They didn't make the story clearer. In fact, they made the story more confusing. I had trouble telling what had happened at one point.

In addition, what minimal plot exists in this book includes a hefty hole because it's the second book in some kind of series. All of a sudden the main character starts talking about someone from the first book and takes off to see him.

Poor plot, images that don't do what they're supposed to, and lack of respect for readers all work together to create a chaotic piece of writing for an age group that has only recently learned to read.

Why am I not mentioning the title? Because I can't balance the negative with positives here, because I can't think of any. So why I am writing about it at all? Because what I think of as this book's problems as a graphic novel have helped me clarify my thinking about graphic novels in general.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Exciting Cybils News

There's been lots of Cybils news this past week because they're getting the ball rolling for 2008. In my humble opinion, the most exciting Cybils news by far is the addition of a new Easy Reader category. I have gone on at great length about how I think books for younger readers don't get the attention they deserve. A Cybil is just the thing to show respect for books for new readers.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Wild Swing Away From Award-Winning YA

I found this under the attendance sheets at my taekwondo school this morning. I don't have a clue what makes for a good intro reading book, but, hey, this is about taekwondo!

Usually martial arts kid fiction tends to be very moral and preachy. With so little text, I sure didn't see any of that here.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Three Robbers Celebration--What Does It Mean, Mr. Natural?

The term "chapter book" doesn't mean much, evidently. Yesterday at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Jules and I discussed the lack of agreement about terminology to describe books for new readers. "Chapter book" is only one name used to label shorter books with limited text, somewhat easier vocabulary, and maybe some illustrations written and marketed for children, say, 7 to 9 years old.

Unless, you're The New York Times. Scroll down its Children's Bestseller List until you get to the subtitle "Chapter Books" and check out the age designations after each title. Every book there is either middle grade or YA. It appears that The NYTimes considers the term chapter book to mean "a book with chapters."

To find books for kids under eight- or nine-years-old, at least on this week's list, you have to look under "Series Books" where Junie B. Jones, Fancy Nancy, and The Magic Tree House are listed. They are series books, but isn't Diary of a Wimpy Kid, too? There are two Wimpy Kid books under "Chapter Books."

My regular readers know that I crave order and definition.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Three Robbers Celebration--Best Poem About A Dead Bunny

Another book for younger ones:
I read one of Dan Gutman's Weird School books (he's written twenty-one of them) back in 2005 and found it well intentioned but written with a run-of-the-mill voice and containing forced humor. I actually liked one of his more recent Weird School books, Ms. Coco Is Loco!, better.

While the first-person narrator still isn't terribly distinctive, more of the humor works, and the school setting is very realistic. The gifted and talented kids being sent out to the gifted and talented teacher who finds whatever they do gifted and talented--yeah, I've seen something like that. Then you've got the older kids sent to the kindergarten class to inspire the little "trolls" (as the main character calls them) by reading poetry to them. Hmmm, yeah, I've seen that, too. The incredibly random responses from the little kids ("Yesterday I ate a booger") sure were realistic. The school setting a goal for the number of poems to be written during Poetry Month...that could happen and probably has.

There was something sort of subversive about this book that I couldn't help liking, too. For a while I thought, Eww, this is going to be a learn to love poetry book. But, no, not at all. If anything, our hero, A.J., makes at least one poetry-loving adult at his school look foolish. He also ends up raking in the old bucks selling illicit poetry. He's the school poetry dealer. I don't know if the kids will get that, but I sure did.

And then there's A.J.s dead bunny poem. I thought it was brilliant.

For a series book for 7- to 10-year-olds, Ms. Coco Is Loco! is deep. It recognizes that, yes, real-world weird things actually do happen at school.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Three Robbers Celebration--Books For Younger Kids

I don't want my blog tour hosts to carry the entire burden of celebrating A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers' publication this Thursday, so I've tried to plan a few special things for this week, too. Off and on, I'm going to try to bring some attention to other books for younger kids--since that is what Three Robbers is.

I picked up Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways by Laura McGee Kvasnosky before the last 48 Hour Book Challenge because the title turned up while I was searching a library database for short story collections for kids. These three stories are for very young kids. They don't involve a lot of text and every page includes a charming color picture of the slightly mousie- looking fox sisters, Zelda and Ivy.

The last story, about creating a concoction (which I can remember doing when I was somewhere between five and seven years old) is probably the most creative. The first story, The Runaways, is pretty familiar, being about a couple of kids who run away and then come home when no one misses them. But the first two sentences are so fantastic that I was hooked right away.

"Dad's making cucumber sandwiches for lunch," said Ivy.
"Not again!" said Zelda. "That's it. I'm running away."

Talk about not wasting time on tedious exposition! Talk about introducing conflict early! This intro could be an example in a writing textbook.

Sometimes I don't get animals that think they are humans in kids' books. They work best for me when they are like Zelda and Ivy--characters living as realistic children in happy, comfortable situations, who just happen to be foxes or frogs or toads or pigs.

Three earlier Zelda and Ivy adventures appeared in picture book format.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Stand And Deliver

I can take time travel books or leave them. The mechanics of getting a character from one time period to another require a willing suspension of disbelief that I can only muster up if there's a good story to go along with it. Jack Bolt and the Highwaymen's Hideout by Richard Hamilton did the trick for me. And, according to its publisher, it's written for 7- to 9-year olds, making it a book for that younger reader I've been so interested in this past year.

Jack Bolt is visiting Granny when Lord Henry Vane, gentleman highwayman, and his sidekick cut through the wall, thinking they've merely found some kind of hiding place off a room that no longer exists in Jack's time. When they learn they've been transported 150 years into the future, they couldn't be happier. What better place to store loot than the future?

Fortunately, Lord Henry is, as I said, a gentleman highwayman. He's also one of those colorful, over-the-top characters who sometimes appear in children's books. While kid characters should be the center of attention in children's fiction, these adult scene-stealers work if they are somewhat child-like themselves. And poor Lord Henry is. He's a Prodigal Son who turned to robbing after he spent all his inheritance. The guy lives with his old nanny.

Lord Henry comes forward into the future, where he is an entertaining fish-out-of-water. Jack goes backward into the past, where he helps Lord Henry clean up his act.

The book has plenty of illustrations, a good adventure, and, best of all, there doesn't appear to be any chance of a sequel.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Round Up For Younger Readers

Seven Imps has a post up on books for younger readers. They point out that these books are called different things by different publishers and may even be directed toward slightly different markets. This may be why they don't get more attention--They aren't easily defined the way middle grade and YA fiction is.

Note that D. M. Cornish of Monster Blood Tattoo fame has illustrated one of these books. I have noted it.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

An Author For Those Younger Readers

I knocked off two Moose and Hildy books by Stephanie Greene a couple of weeks ago. I don't think I would describe them as "hilarious" the way the publisher does in one case or "lots of laughs" as as a reviewer for School Library Journal says of the other. But these were decent little books (with modest lessons) that I think could become "comfort reads" for first through third graders who get into the two characters--a moose and a pig--who are friends in the manner of the immortal Frog and Toad.

When I went to Greene's website, I discovered she describes the Moose and Hildy books as "Early Readers." She also has written books she calls chapter books, including a series about a young man named Owen Foote.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Old Time California

I was looking for what you might call a traditional pirate book for younger kids when I picked up The Giant Rat of Sumatra or Pirates Galore by Sid Fleischman. It didn't serve my purposes, since the pirates were pretty much landlocked from the get-go. But it was a very decent historical novel that I think would be accessible for kids as young as say, third or fourth grade.

Our twelve-year-old narrator, known as Shipwreck, was saved by Captain Gallows and his pirate crew on the Giant Rat of Sumatra after the ship upon which he and his not very warm and fuzzy stepfather were traveling went down. Captain Gallows only preyed on other pirates and now that he has made his bundle, he's giving up the sea to go back to Spanish California in the 1840s and live as Don Alejandro. My knowledge of this period is pretty much limited to Zorro. But, I have to admit, The Rats of Sumatra has aroused a little curiousity in me for the era.

Gallows/Alejandro only dresses up in the good quality clothes of a Spanish landowner and not a black mask. But he has some of the same heroic attitude of the Z Man. He's seeking a sort of personal revenge--sans blood--against the wealthy landowner who had treated him and others like him badly when he was a child. If he can help a few others while he's at it, so much the better.

Notice I'm talking an awful lot about an adult character. In this book, the interesting, heroic figure is an adult, not the child. As a general rule, I'm opposed to that sort of thing. Kids' books are supposed to be about kids. But I've read a few books where this arrangement works. (The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, for instance.)

I think when a children's book with a dominant adult character works, it's because that character is an outsider in society. In the case of Gallows/Alejandro, he started out as an outsider child. He became a pirate, certainly living outside society's laws. But as a pirate who stole from other pirates, he was even outside whatever pirate society may have existed.

Gallows/Alejandro isn't assimilated into his society, just as the children who will read this book are not yet assimilated into adult society. Shipwreck, the child character, doesn't have a place anywhere, either. His mother, an actress (she must have been an outsider in 1840's Boston), may have been glad to see him get on the ship that took him away from her. We're not sure. And then he finds himself in a Mexican controlled land that is at war with his own country. Yes, a lovely narrative complication, but one that makes our child character an outsider in that time and place.

So there are logical reasons why this light, engaging historical novel works for younger readers.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Santa Meets Space Dudes

I love the idea of combining Santa with aliens and did a chapter doing that very thing in my first book. Gregory Maguire did an entire novel on the subject.

In Five Alien Elves, a group of space travelers crash land in Hamlet, Vermont on Christmas Eve. After picking up a bit of a Christmas movie on their spaceship's monitor, they decide that the evil Santa Claws must be enslaving elves who turn out evil soldiers and dolls that the old man in red plants in homes after he breaks in and steals family members' milk and cookies. Since the head alien is out to earn herself some kind of merit badge for liberating a planet, she decides to save humanity by capturing Santa and freeing his workers.

I was looking for an alien book for younger kids, and this one definitely does the trick. The aliens capture the local mayor, who's sweet on a teacher in town, while he's done up as Santa. The teacher's students step up to the plate, hunt for the guy, and take on the aliens. The aliens are misguided and funny, and the kids are a bit over the top in a humorous way.

The only drawback to this book is that the characters make it pretty clear that Santa isn't real. That's the kind of mature content that some parents find disturbing. So you've been warned.

Five Alien Elves is part of seven-book series called The Hamlet Chronicles.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paying Attention To Books For Younger Readers

Two blogs recently carried posts on books for younger readers.

Chicken Spaghetti shared a list of 50 nonfiction books for first and second graders that was compiled by Candace Herbst of the Westport, Connecticut Public Library.

And Big A, little a linked to a Telegraph column of reviews of "first readers." The writer, Tom Payne, describes first readers as books that don't have good pictures and says they "...could be a child's first encounter with anything that looks or feels like a novel. They wean people off bold illustrations..."


Saturday, March 15, 2008

All About Spies

Last weekend there was a conversation going on over at Read Roger about the difference between "an adult reading a children's book recreationally and reading it professionally." It was very timely for me, because I was finishing up reading Dawn Undercover by Anna Dale, and I was definitely having a little problem trying to determine how kids would feel about this book versus how I felt about it.

I felt this book was very well-written, by the way. I was in the market for a spy book for younger kids, and this one is well-done. Dawn Buckle is a bland, nondescript English child who people don't notice. She has to attach herself to other kids in order to cross the street because the crossing-guard would never bother with her otherwise. A recruiter for a spy agency thinks this would make her a gifted spy and signs her up.

Great idea. I loved the set-up, though Dawn has one of those Roald Dahl-type over-the-top and negligent (though in this case only mildly so) families that are common in British books and that I find annoying. But a lot of people don't find them annoying, and I was able to put that aside because they disappear early on.

Dawn then spends nearly half the book being trained as a spy by a lot of adult characters. Her spy story doesn't start until halfway through the book. I think some trimming could have been done there.

Here's the part that bothered me, personally, though--Once Dawn has finished her training and is out on her case, she is no longer the nondescript child I loved at the beginning of the book. That whole aspect of the story seems to just be dropped. Okay, toward the end Dawn realizes that she's changed, and I know change is good, but I liked Dawn the way she was. I would have liked to have seen her use who she was in her adventure. I was disappointed. To me she seemed to have just turned into another run-of-the-mill kid adventure character.

But would a child reader react that way? A child reader, who hasn't read a lot of spunky girl books, might very well appreciate that a friendless, bland little girl could change and become spunky. A child reader might very well want to identify with a character who does that rather than a character who uses her blandness to fight evil.

When I stopped being an adult reading a children's book recreationally and forced myself to be an adult reading a children's book professionally, I decided Dawn Undercover is probably a good child spy story for younger kids.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Thing Of Interest--Violet Bing

I'm afraid I'm very much like Violet Odelia Bing in Violet Bing and The Grand House by Jennifer Paros. My mind is made up about a great many things. I don't care for kids' books about children with funny names like Violet Odelia Bing. As a general rule, I'm not fond of eccentric great aunts (or uncles, for that matter). I think their freaky old houses have been done to death, too. And third-person narrators who speak directly to readers set my teeth on edge.

And, yet, I like Violet Bing. I even like the Grand House she visits.

I think what makes Violet so attractive to me is that she isn't a cute, funny kid. She is an anxious child. She is "against Surprises and Things I Don't Know." She has an objection to every new experience. Such children aren't going to fall into line easily or quickly or--let's be honest, here--maybe even at all. They certainly aren't going to learn a sweet little lesson from an adult, as so many children in books for younger readers do.

Violet refuses to go on vacation with the rest of the family and has to accept staying with her great-aunt who lives in an odd, "Grand House." Usually in kids' books, the child main character goes to visit the great-aunt in her bizarre old lair and is blown away by what she finds there. Not our Violet. Astrid (she's rarely referred to as "aunt," which is a nice touch) tries to entice her with all the house's charms, its "Things of Interest." But Violet will have none of it. "There is nothing of Interest," she says. In what seems to me to be a bit of a role-reversal, Violet is the eccentric relative here.

Violet does begin to loosen up through the intervention of a dog, a neighbor child, and, you might say, a girl much like herself. Oh, and maybe a spider. But the loosening up is slow, as it would be in real life. This reader, at least, was left with the hope that Violet wouldn't change all that much.

Violet Bing and The Grand House sounds as if it might be the beginning of a series. If that's the case, I'm not sure if a less negative Violet will be as engaging as she was in this first book. But in The Grand House she is an intriguing character for readers in the early grades.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Serious Book For Younger Readers

My goodness! I've read another award winner! Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee Frazier won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award last week.

The back of Brendan Buckley contains the following information: "In ten years, I'd never once met my grandpa. My mom didn't want to talk about him. Now suddenly I'd discovered him, and he was a scientist, just like me. Where had he been? Why couldn't we talk about him? This is what I found out..."

As God is my witness, I read that, and I looked at what I took to be a fun cover, and I thought, Oh, grandpa's going to be some kind of mad scientist or something! What fun!

Well, grandpa's not a mad scientist. Not even close. This isn't the first time I've made a mistake like this. I'll spare you the details.

I will tell you, though, that I enjoyed Brendan Buckley a lot more then you would think, given my embarrassing misunderstanding about what I was getting into.

First off, I have to say I think the book would have been better served with a third- person narrator rather than a first. Brendan doesn't have a particularly powerful or unique voice, anyway, and sometimes he sounds too cute. I think a third-person narrator would have helped avoid that.

And though I'm always happy to read about Tae Kwon Do, in this particular case, it seemed as if the TKD thread's only function was to teach ethics. I'm not faulting Frazier's knowledge of the subject, by any means, but I think the Tae Kwon Do material detracted from the story.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'll also point out that the story is Brendan Buckley's big strength. Young Brendan is a biracial child. He's got a great little life going. He's got wonderful parents, he's got friends, and school doesn't seem to present any big problems for him. His black grandparents are terrific. (Grandma is a pistol.) Though his father has tried to warn him of what he may confront in the future as a young black man, to date Brendan hasn't experienced a lot of racism. The worst thing that has happened to him so far in life is the death of his beloved grandfather a few months before our story begins.

When he accidentally meets his white grandfather for the first time and realizes gramps lives nearby even though the two of them have never laid eyes on one another before, he figures this is his chance for another grandpa. He picks up on the fact that there's something wrong within the family--no one wants to talk about this grandfather, who, at first, doesn't even know who Brendan is. So Brendan sets out on his own to approach the old man and try to develop a relationship with him.

Now, even though this adult reader easily figured out what the old guy's problem was, I wanted to keep reading because this is a compelling family story. Identity within family...connections across generations...I love that stuff. I wondered if kids would be as interested. I'm guessing they will. Again, identity and one's place within the family are supposed to be classic themes of children's literature. Plus, there is a mystery element here that kids may really enjoy.

In addition to having a good story, the second thing I think Brendan Buckley has going for it is that, while it may sound like one on paper, it isn't a problem book. Racism isn't a problem for Brendan at this point in his life. When ol' granddad comes out with the cliched argument against inter-racial marriage--"It's always the kids who suffer," Brendan replies, "I'm not suffering."

The third thing I think Brendan has going for it is that, though Amazon lists it as having a reading level of 9 to 12, I think it leans toward the lower end of that range. It's not an oppressively heavy book and could serve as an introduction to the world of more serious reading for, say, third or fourth graders.

I'd never heard of Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It before I stumbled upon it at my library. I hope the award it won last week brings the title more attention.


Monday, December 10, 2007

My Favorite Dangerous Books For Girls

The Ivy + Bean books by Annie Barrows have been well received, but I don't think they get the amount of attention that a couple of other young girl series have been getting. I don't think it's just one of those unpredictable things that happens sometimes. Ivy + Bean doesn't get more buzz than it does because it doesn't play to grown-up readers the way Junie B. and Clementine do.

Bean could be described as a Junie B. and Clementine type of child in that she tends to go her own way. Her creator describes her as "loud and wild." The difference between Bean and the other leads in the big, girl series is that Bean is comfortable with who she is. She isn't always anxiously interacting with adult characters who reassure her in some way or are involved in helping her learn a reassuring lesson. Most of Bean's interaction is with another child and not adults. She interacts with Ivy, her co-lead, who, superficially, is your stereotypical quiet little girl.

Yeah, your quiet little girl who is into magic and potions, and who is sharp as a tack. Talk about still waters running deep.

These kids don't need a lot from the adult world. Adult readers aren't going to be comforted by story lines in which characters like themselves are in control. Ivy and Bean and the Ghost That Had to Go takes place at their elementary school. (The first book in the series didn't.) Yes, the girls have a very nice teacher. But there's also a satisfyingly retro fifth grade teacher patrolling the halls in pantyhose and high heels for the girls to clash with and overcome.

Yeah. That's right. You heard me. The teacher doesn't lead the children to some meaningful revelation about life. The teacher, an avatar for society and the conforming world, loses to two second graders. That's the way it should be because, damn it, this is a kids' book. (Imagine a Lewis Black rant here, complete with frantic head shaking and garbled noises and concerns about whether or not my head is going to explode over the mere thought that kids should fight the good fight and win in a book about them.)

So, anyway, you can see why adult gatekeepers might find the Ivy and Bean series just a little bit dangerous. We'd much rather direct young readers to books that portray wild girls hobbled by problems and needing grown-ups. We don't want wild girls to know that they can take on the world themselves.

This gatekeeper, however, is making sure her niece gets an Ivy and Bean book for Christmas this year.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ah...Isn't This Just Junie B. Jones With Good Grammar?

Get ready, people. This is going to be one of those Gail-doesn't-like-a-beloved-book posts. I haven't done one of those in a while. Five weeks, I think.

I don't hate The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. It is well-written. It has a real story, and it doesn't have any cartoon bad guys. Pennypacker treats her readers with respect. But I've been hearing things about Clementine for a while now, including comments like, "Everyone says they want more books like Clementine." So I was expecting something very different, not just different from what I found but different in terms of other books.

By the time I got to the third or fourth page, and I was reading this first-person account of a young girl with an unusual name in an elementary school classroom who says the darndest, cutest things to adults, I started thinking, Hey! Isn't this just like Junie B. Jones who is also a young girl with an unusual name in an elementary school classroom who says the darndest, cutest things to adults? Except that Clementine uses good grammar?

I've only read a couple of Junie B. Jones books, so I'm no authority on the subject. But these two series seem amazingly alike to me, right down to these kids being cute the way adults like kids to be cute. They're cute like the youngest kid in a sitcom family--not the older wiseass kid, but the one who says oddly adorable things that have some kind of significance. And both kids interact with adults a lot, which isn't a bad thing. It just sort of gives the book more of an adult interest to me.

I know kids are supposed to love Junie B. Jones, and I imagine they must love Clementine, too, since she's so much like her. How intriguing since both characters seem like an adult's idea of the model nonconforming child--cute and nonthreatening. Kids like that kind of nonconformist, too.

I realized recently that I haven't been posting links to positive reviews/material to give readers an opposing viewpoint the way I used to. So check out the awards and positive reviews the first book in the Clementine series received.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Time Will Always Work Against Me

I was very ambitious back when I was a teenager. In those days, I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be immortal. I can remember thinking about it during study hall. Traipsing off to that great high school cafeteria in the sky would be okay because long after I was dust people yet unborn would be taking my books off shelves, and thus I would live on. It never entered my mind that people yet unborn might look at my work and say, "When did this woman live? In the Dark Ages?"

But in all likelihood, they will.

I found The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron on the new book shelf at my local library. The two boys in the space ship suggested to me that this might be one of those books for younger kids that I've been hunting for these last few months, so I took it home.

I started to read and thought, How retro. I read a little more and thought, How very retro. Before long I was thinking, How very, very retro.

Well, the book isn't retro at all. It probably fits very much into the period in which it was written, since it was originally published in 1954. It was probably very contemporary then.

I don't know what to make of Flight to the Mushroom Planet, at least in terms of being a book for early twenty-first century kids. Though the writing is sophisticated as far as vocabulary and writing skill is concerned, it has a "Hey! Let's build a space ship and go to another planet" aura about it that definitely comes from another time. Like some of Ray Bradbury's work, it's a product of a time when people could still believe humans could land on another planet and walk around and talk with the folks there. It also has a Bradbury-like romance with boyhood, a fantasy boyhood, perhaps, during which young fellows built things and had adventures and adults respected that. I also thought it had a Twilight Zone feel. (Rod Serling was seriously into the romance of childhood and treated it nostalgically, in my humble opinion.) When David is telling his mother about his adventure on the mushroom planet and he, and we, aren't sure whether she believes him or just loves talking to him, I could easily imagine her in a shirtwaist and pearls, a black-and-white mom on the TV.

None of this is to say The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is a bad book. It's just very, very rooted in its time. I don't know how it will go over with the kids of our time, who probably all know by the time they hit kindergarten that no human being is going to be hopping out of a spaceship onto another planet without millions of dollars of hardware to keep her alive.

I think this is probably the fate of a great many books, not just works of science fiction. We are all residents of our time period. That's the way it should be. Our work, no matter what it is, is a product of the time in which it was produced. Some products will be appreciated decades later. Some won't.

Oddly enough, Eleanor Cameron wrote an article for The Horn Book back in 1972 in which she said something similar. "When in any age of the world's history has much of any art lasted? Out of the thousands upon thousands of works constantly being produced, most sink away and are forgotten." In a later paragraph she says, "Will any of the children's books written in the past thirty years be alive and beloved one hundred years from now?"

In her article, she raises that question in relation to the quality of the work. But I think there's more at work in keeping a title current than the quality of the writing. The passage of time is important, too. The children of 2007 aren't the children of 1972 or the children of 1954. They are products of the times they live in. Books are products of the times they were written in. Some of the works from the early '70s that Cameron spoke highly of in The Horn Book probably were very well done. How widely known are they now?

I should be sad that I'm not going to be immortal. But I do believe that those people yet unborn I was expecting to read my decades old books have a right to be people of their era, just as I am of mine.

Younger children who can still get into the idea of a nontechnical space adventure and who also have good reading skills may enjoy The Wonderful Flight of the Mushroom Planet.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Partners In Uncrime

If you can believe that a kid superhero is making L.A. a safer place, Terror in Tights, the fourth in the Melvin Beederman series by Greg Trine isn't half bad.

After having read so many books for younger readers this summer that were just rambling lists of gimmicks and instructional wordplay, I found Terror in Tights a relief. Yeah, I wasn't crazy about the characters interacting with the narrator, but that definitely is just a personal quirk on my part. Though the book is the fourth in a series, it was a separate story. Young readers should be able to follow it even if it is the first of the Melvin Beederman books they've stumbled upon. (I was able to follow it, anyway, and it was the first of the books I'd stumbled upon.)

The book has only three major characters, and they're all kids. It has a number of illustrations (by Rhode Montijo) and a country song that should be sung to the tune of Man of Constant Sorrow.

You could do much worse.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Don't Kids Say The Darndest Things?

Since I've been reading and blogging about books for younger readers this summer, I've been interested in all the Internet responses to Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?.

I've only read a couple of the Junie B. books, and one of them actually made a good impression on me. My own complaint about them is not Junie's poor grasp of grammar but that her poor grasp of grammar makes her sound like an adult's idea of how little kids speak. The humor in the books I read seemed to be around the exasperating things children say and do. Isn't that Junie B. a little dickens?

Back in 2005, though, I thought Junie B. was "so much better than almost anyone else out there" for that age group. I'm still not finding a lot of good stuff out there for younger readers. So while I'd prefer not to read her, myself, I certainly don't object to anyone else doing so.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sexual Politics For The Very Young

Last Saturday I happened to read two books for younger kids that dealt with sex role stereotyping. Both could be said to deal with cliched situations. One just did it much better than the other.

The first book was part of the Black Lagoon Adventures I mentioned earlier this week. Like the other Black Lagoon book I read, it has very little plot. The book is primarily a list of jokes.

In The Class Election From The Black Lagoon Hubie,the male main character, is running against Doris for president of their class. Hubie is extremely concerned about the consequences of losing to a girl. He goes on for three pages about letting down every boy in the school, sounding very much like a mid-twentieth century sitcom. A joke from the '70s about long-suffering men sounds very adult:

"We shake hands and she goes first. She says that she's for women's rights and total equality. I ask her why she gets to go first.

"'Because I'm a girl, of course,' she sneers."

Will a child even get that?

Hubie manages to win, though I don't know how since Doris had clearly bought the election. Hubie says of her, "I want her in my cabinet, or even better--I'll make her my first lady."

I was quite horrified by that suggestion, though after a few days of thinking about it, I'm willing to concede that perhaps it was supposed to be a sign of romance blooming between the two characters. Nonetheless, while I know that children go through a stage when they prefer the company of their own kind, things have deteriorated at the elementary school level since I was a room mom if this book reflects reality.

Rufus the Scrub Does Not Wear A Tutu by Jamie McEwan also deals with a cliched situation, that of the male athlete who chooses to try an activity not traditionally associated with men. What Rufus has going for it is a real story, even if it is one that will be familiar to adult readers, and the recognition that its audience is living in the twenty-first century.

Thus when the coach gives Rufus a hard time for leaving football practice early to go to the ballet class he's attending to help with his clumsiness, Coach's main gripe is that the kid isn't putting football first in his life and not that he's behaving in an effeminate manner. Rufus's own friends don't want him to quit ballet. Ballet isn't as wimpy as quitting it because some of the players give him a hard time. And Rufus has a logical reason for liking the ballet class--the younger, smaller girls he takes it with like having the older, bigger boy there so he can lift them. It makes sense that that would appeal to Rufus's self-esteem.

I thought there were a few too many similar, undeveloped characters in Rufus, and evidently it's being marketed as a middle-grade book, though it seemed much younger to me. Still, it's a complete story that deals with gender issues that young kids actually face--namely, what are boys supposed to do and what are girls supposed to do and are we all just stuck with that situation?

The answer in Rufus the Scrub Does Not Wear A Tutu is no.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Books For The Younger Ones--Part III
As part of my early reading mission, I picked up a couple of Black Lagoon Adventures by Mike Thaler and Jared Lee. This series is part of what seems to be a pattern--books that depend heavily on word play.

The Black Lagoon Adventures seem to be more sophisticated than the other books of this type I've read. There's less reliance on funny-sounding words or toilet humor. In fact, the jokes are directed to your more literate third graders. For instance, you have to know who the Wright Brothers were in order to get a Wrong Brothers joke and "closet-ra-phobia" is going to be lost on a child who isn't familiar with the word claustrophobia.

But the word games are pretty much all that you get in the Black Lagoon. You'll see some names but no real characters attached to them. And you'll get a situation--a field trip or a class election in the books I read--but not much of a story. The Class Trip From The Black Lagoon has a lot of buildup with rambling incidents and The Class Election From The Black Lagoon has an extremely dated and predictable plot.

And I have no idea why "Black Lagoon" appears in the title. It was never mentioned in the two books I read.

After dipping into the kiddie pool at a couple of local libraries and coming up with four books on the new shelves all pushing gimmicks and jokes, I'm wondering what's going on. Did I just have bad luck? Four, after all, isn't a statistically significant number. Or is there some reason why puns, idioms, and palindromes are so important for child development that they trump the basic elements of fiction?


Friday, June 22, 2007

More Books For The Younger Ones

Or Subtlety Can Be Funny. The Word Poo Repeated Over And Over Again? Not So Much.

Back when the Gauthier children were wee ones, story tellers were popular in these parts. The kiddies and I would see them at the library, at the school, at YMCA Indian Guide family picnics. A lot of these people seemed to think telling stories to children was all about funny faces and funny voices. Funny words and sounds. Funny costumes and gestures. I remember one guy turning around and waving his ass at his audience.

I particularly hated him.

I think there is a literary equivalent of story tellers who rely on superficial gimmicks or what they believe to be kid-friendly tricks, such as funny names. Otto Undercover: Toxic Taffy Takeover by Rhea Perlman comes close to falling into that category.

Toxic Taffy Takeover is one in a series about a child undercover agent. In this volume, he has to overcome a Coney Island bad guy who is using tainted candy to control the minds of her customers. There are lots of silly James Bond-type gadgets. There are lots of silly words because just as Stink and the Incredible Super-galactic Jawbreaker was intent on teaching children idioms, Toxic Taffy Takeover pulls in plenty of palindromes and anagrams.

I got the feeling with both books that the people behind them think children like wordplay, so they're going to give them wordplay.

Otto also gives them lots of snot because the bad guy is missing her nose and without a nose where does snot have to go except all over your face? She's also missing most of her teeth, which makes her lisp. I'm not going to get all high and mighty about how little humor there is in a permanent lisp. I will say, though, that extended dialogue written in lithp is difficult to read. For new readers who don't have a lot of experience sounding out words, it must be torture.

And then there is the baby who is always using the word poo.

Toilet humor can be funny. But the toilet part, all by itself, isn't what's funny. It's the humorous situation built around it that creates the humor.

Compare Toxic Taffy Takeover with Diary of a Monster's Son (an out-of-print book I stumbled upon at the library) by Ellen Conford.

Bradley, the monster's son, shares with us accounts of his trips with his father to buy new school clothes, Dad's visit to school for parent/teacher night, and Dad's attempt to fix a hole in the ceiling. As he's telling us all this stuff, Bradley's pretty much oblivious to the fact that his father is a monster. We understand that the people around them are reacting to the fact that dad's a great big hairy beast, but Bradley doesn't get it. His father does all kinds of normal dad stuff, he just does it while covered with a great deal of body hair and fangs protruding out over his bottom lip.

The humor is subtle and wry and comes about because of incongruity, not strange sounding words or random toilet talk. It's funny because it shouldn't be happening.

What's more, Bradley's dad is a prince of a guy. While Bradley, himself, is described by his teacher as sometimes being "a perfect little monster." We've got a little irony going here, too.

While I've made it clear here that I have a preference for one of these books over the other, in fairness I should say that as far as the types of humor displayed in these works is concerned, they probably are examples of two extremes in humor.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Some Books For The Younger Ones

A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat is written for a younger age group than I've written for in the past. Since this is its release week (as you cannot possibly have missed because I talk about it all the time), I thought I'd take a look at some other books written for kids in the primary grades.

And by "written for kids in the primary grades" I mean either books that said as much on their covers or looked as if they might be for younger kids when I scooped them up at the library last Friday. (I hadn't been to the library for weeks. I nearly giddy I was so happy to be there.)

First up is Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. The Mutant Mosquitoes From Mercury by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey won fame and acclaim for The Captain Underpants books. I've only read a couple of the books from that series, but I rather liked them. I thought they were clever and used some pretty sophisticated vocabulary for a books in which an elementary school principal wanders around in his briefs.

If The Mutant Mosquitoes From Mercury is any indicator, the Ricky Ricotta books are geared a little younger crowd. The main character is a mouse rather than a human and if there's any of the "questionable" humor that got other adults' knickers in a twist with the Underpants books, I missed it. The book seems a little formulaic--a child has a super robot sidekick and they save the world. I can see why a child would like that, and Pilkey says at his website that he was interested in recreating a kind of story he enjoyed watching on television when he was a child.

Still, I miss the wit and twisted world of Captain Underpants.

Second up is Stink and the Incredible Super-galactic Jawbreaker by Megan McDonald. McDonald is also the author of the Judy Moody series (which I've never read), and Stink Moody is Judy's younger brother.

The Judy Moody books are very well-reviewed and have received numerous honors. This book about Stink, though--Well, let's say I found it instructive. And kind of gimmicky and fake. I got the impression that the book is supposed to be funny. But that was only an impression.

The book appears to have an instructional agenda, to teach children about idioms. Each chapter has an idiom for a title (Mad as a Hornet, for instance). That idiom, as well as others, is used in that chapter. Then each chapter ends with a comic page that illustrates (none too subtly) another idiom.

I'm sure it would be a great book to have in a first or second grade classroom. (Stink is a second grader, by the way, and the age range given on the cover is "Ages 5-8") It screams "teaching tool" to me.

I know it's been a few years since I've been around a lot of kids this age. But we're not talking a generation or anything. I've never heard young kids use expressions like "Jumping jawbreakers!" or refer to someone as a "super-best-friend." The book doesn't seem very natural to me. These kids sound like kids from 1950s television shows, who were hardly natural even then.

My reading quest will continue later this week. And probably next.